He used to climb the tree whenever he could. Any excuse to get out of the house and run free through the wood to its fabulously wide base. The knobbly bark was like a friend to him, he knew its grooves and lumps well; better than he knew the back of his hand. It would probably have taken about five or six grown men to spread their arms and reach around its circumference. He loved its solidity and the creaking sway of its branches. It was alive yet felt permanent, reaching its broad fingered leaves to the sky and pushing its fat snaking roots into the earth. Clinging onto the mulch of the earth like a slow spreading limpet. He loved the velvet buds of spring and the golden orange of autumn. Most of all he loved it in the summer holidays. Summer when the leaves were the ripest of greens and the acorns fell and the warm air hummed with the buzz of insects and floating seeds.
It was his tree.
For him climbing it was effortless, even though the lowest branches were easily ten feet above his head. He knew the best footholds at the back and where to grip crevices in the bark. If you were to have watched him move quickly up onto the first wide branch you might have been tempted to think he were a monkey as he moved with such simian grace. Only the grubby shorts, t-shirt and plimsolls gave clues this was actually a small human boy. From the first branch it was easy to twist and turn and fold himself around the trunk; higher and higher into the foliage.
Not far from the top was his favourite place. He sat, legs dangling, on the spread of branch where it connected to the trunk. Breeze in his hair as he surveyed the view and felt the gentle living sway of the tree. It grew on a small rise in the centre of the wood as if it had chosen this kingly position just for him; to command over all. He thought of it as the biggest and most noble of trees and it was certainly the highest.
It was his castle and he was the king.
From the top of his oak he could see across the canopy; mushrooms of green topping all the trees below, the silver birch and ash, the goat willow and yew. The wood breathed and swayed as it spread down into the valley. Beyond was the river, he could hear its trickle above the breeze, and beyond that the slag heaps of the mine, unnatural black hills of another world. Behind him he knew he could see the town with its pavements and brick but he never looked that way, preferring instead the trees and fields of nature.
It was his kingdom and no one else could reach him.
Occasionally, in those long days of no school and sun drenched solitude, he heard the whoops of other boys and girls from the town as they ran through the wood, building dens and playing war with sticks and kiss-chase but he was adept at hiding from them. He knew their names and knew the venom that spat from their tongues on the playground. Here, in his oak, he was free from them, better than them.
And so the summers past, as they inevitably do, and he grew, but not so much that you could describe him as big. As his teenage years came his mother despaired at his lack of sociability and try as she might she couldn’t keep him from disappearing into the wood. If anything he spent more time alone with the trees during all hours of God-given daylight. Only school and meals dragged him back to the human world. In the end she just accepted that it was who he was and there was nothing she could do. He was his father’s son after all. His long lost father; always the loner, unable to commit to the life of a parent. He had long since disappeared into a world of his own making. She hadn’t heard from him in ten years and didn’t suppose she would ever hear from him again. She became resigned that her son would eventually do the same, because, as she came to realise, being a parent is about letting go.
Always letting go.
By the time he was sixteen the girl with the red hair had been watching him for three summers long. Watching him run through the streets past her house and watching him as he raced through the woods and bushes. She watched as he scaled the tree, his arms taut and muscular. She liked the way his back was firm as he pulled himself up. She liked his independence and envied his solitude.
Eventually she plucked up the courage and sat at the base of his tree waiting.
Of course he knew her; knew her name and knew she had been watching him. And he knew she might turn up one day. It was no surprise to him when he saw her sat there beneath his tree in her loose summer dress. The only surprise was to feel the attraction between them in that most unexpected way desire creeps up on the young. A physical flush that is both embarrassing and intriguing.
Not many words passed their lips as they made love on the carpet of moss that lay hidden between two heavy roots extending from the base of the tree. It was brief but fulfilling and he knew it was perfect. And somehow so did she.
He also knew that it would be the only time, because that was the summer the bulldozers came, clearing the woods for the road and new houses. Some of the locals put up a spirited fight but the boy knew his tree was doomed. He had sensed it the year before when the leaves and acorns seemed sparse, as if the oak knew that five hundred years of life were quite enough for anybody to experience the world. It was dying anyway and the chainsaws and bulldozers would only put it out of its misery and give it a new life as furniture or the hull of a fancy sailboat. Its sadness was his sadness but he knew that it was the inevitable spin of nature. Growth, maturity, death, rebirth.
She watched as the buzz of the machines got closer to his tree and the new life grew inside her. She watched as he climbed the tree for the last time and when he came back down to earth she was waiting. She held his hand tenderly on her belly and they kissed one last time.
Of course she never saw him again after that. He was gone just like his tree. Gone like his father before him. Gone, she supposed, to find a new tree to love. A new tree in a deeper forest far from the threat of machines and sawdust. She was never bitter and did her best to love and cherish their boy as he grew. Never bitter for she knew that love is a fleeting thing, forever trapped in the moment. His mother and her family supported her and the boy grew fit and strong and curious, like boys do.
And of course she wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the boy discovered trees. Only five but climbing was in his bones and before long he would run to the small patch of woodland that was left at the edge of the housing estate. There in the centre was the last of the oaks and she watched as he climbed its faded bark with ease.
A smile came to her face as she glimpsed his smile through the branches. His smile in amongst the leaves. She was letting go…
© 2014 Simon Poore